2018-02-08 / Front Page

School board budget up 6%; cuts expected

BY TIM RIEL

If changes are not made in the upcoming weeks, the school department will ask voters to approve a $12.86 million budget, which is about 6 percent higher than this year’s measure.

“This proposed increase is by far the highest we’ve had to address in my time on the school committee,” said Chairman B.J. Whitehouse, a board member since 2007.

The school department’s business manager, Jane Littlefield, unveiled the sticker shock during the committee’s Jan. 25 meeting. Offset by $750,000 in expected revenue, which includes $500,000 in state aid, and $200,000 from the district surplus, taxpayers would be on the hook for $11.9 million, which is $714,563 more than this year. While that initial number is daunting, Whitehouse rallied his colleagues to scour the measure for cuts. “I suggest we start looking hard,” he said.

That spending plan includes $4.31 million for Melrose, $3.77 million for Lawn, $1.12 million for districtwide overhead, including technology, maintenance and administration, and $226,000 for retiree benefits. Costs associated with schools in other districts total $3.43 million, which includes $3.15 million for tuition, nearly 25 percent of the total budget. Tuition upticks account for $262,000 over fiscal 2018, an increase of just over 9 percent. That is fueled by 39 graduating seniors and 52 incoming freshmen at the high schools, according to Littlefield’s predictions.

“Financially, that’s 13 wonderful children but 13 new tuitions,” Whitehouse said.

Other major upticks stem from contractual raises for teachers and a $505,000 increase for special education.

“We have a lot of kids with special needs, and we do right by them,” Councilwoman Dorothy Strang said. “That’s costly. It’s something we should be rightly proud of.”

Along with the operating budget, the board is asking for $166,825 in capital improvements, which includes 65 new Chromebooks for second- and third-graders. The remaining capital projects, including critical repairs highlighted in a statewide infrastructure assessment, are reimbursable by at least 35 percent.

The board reconvened last Thursday following Whitehouse’s call for a week’s worth of diligence.

“I want everybody in town to understand that this budget is appropriate as presented,” he said. “It is lean as presented. But this budget is too much as presented.”

At the Feb. 1 meeting, the board asked the principals to look at their requests to see if any technology or program could be postponed for a year. The board also considered cheaper buses, a part-time art teacher, cutting uncontracted personnel and “duct taping” furniture. They also discussed taking more money from the unreserved fund, but Littlefield recommended against that measure. If they did, the board would commence the 2019-20 budget season in the hole with that number. The board agreed.

“It’s like selling the family silver to pay the electric bill,” Baines said. “You have to have a sustainable budget.”

The board will continue these discussions at 7 tonight in the Lawn School library. Another budget workshop is scheduled for next Thursday.

“I’m not going to leave any stones unturned,” Whitehouse said.

“At this point, every penny counts,” Littlefield added.

Finally, Whitehouse suggested asking the town council to dip into its surplus. “You can solve this right now,” he half-jokingly told Town Administrator Andy Nota. “Just write us a check.”

Because of the proposed hike, Nota has been attending the budget workshops. He said his team already has been cutting back on the municipal side because it anticipated the school district’s situation. Nota then put the committee’s $715,000 increase in perspective.

“If we flat-lined the town budget and everything else was equal, like revenue and state aid, it’s about a 34-cent increase on your tax rate,” he said.

While the situation is dire, Nota said these types of years are to be expected. A similar budget increase was approved in 2006.

“This isn’t an annual occurrence, but it does come,” he said.

Whitehouse emphasized the board’s goal, regardless of the budget constraints, is to continue providing award-winning education.

“I’m never going to tell anybody what a buck is worth,” he said, “but this is what it costs to educate children at this level, which is pretty high.”

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